Surprise Me by Deena Goldstone

The Making of a Writer 

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

February 2017


Surprise Me
by Deena Goldstone

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In the novel Surprise Me a young writer, Isabelle Rothman, meets her mentor, novelist and Professor Daniel Jablonski, and they form a unique bond that influences them personally and professionally.

Novelist Deena Goldstone knows how significant a mentoring relationship can be. As a young screenwriter, she developed a bond with Alvin Sargent, an Academy Award winning screenwriter, whose work includes scripts for Ordinary People, Julia, and Bobby Deerfield.

“We spent an hour talking about my work, and he said he wanted me to do rewrites and come back the next week,” said Goldstone.

“People can connect in ways that we don’t have a name for.”

Thus began a yearlong collaboration that would shape Goldstone’s writing career as a screenwriter, her eventual work as a mentor to young screenwriters at the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, and inspire the novel she would write thirty years later.

Goldstone and Sargent met each week and discussed “what if” scenarios and areas of the script that needed improvement. Sargent pointed out areas of her work that surprised him and encouraged her to continue to make bold choices.

“People can connect in ways that we don’t have a name for. That kind of intimacy changed my life,” said Goldstone.

She went on to write screenplays but found as she got into her early 60s it was harder to find work. Goldstone was also bumping up against the limitations of screenplays, whereas she observed: “the form itself limits the writer’s artistic choices.” 

She wrote short stories and put them away. When she had eight stories that were linked by theme, she gave them to her screenwriting agent who passed them on to literary agent Marly Rusoff.

Rusoff helped Goldstone polish the stories that would become the collection Tell Me One Thing and then sent them to Nan A. Talese, who published them through her imprint at Doubleday. During this period, Goldstone wrote a short story that would become the basis for her novel Surprise Me.

“The novel gave me a canvas to discuss the gift Alvin had given me; the idea that what’s inside you is worthy enough for others to read,” said Goldstone.

“The way I approach the work is from my characters.”

The novel spans twenty years in the lives of Isabelle and Daniel.   The book is told in three parts covering a six-month stretch in 1994, a six year stretch from 1994 to 2000 and the summer of 2014.

“How do you do twenty years without jumping time? I figured out when they would meet again and what the reader needed to know about the characters before they came together,” said Goldstone.

The readers sees the encouragement Daniel, who is older and has writer’s block, gives Isabelle as she starts to write, and is privy to a growing attraction between the two. The characters go in different directions, Daniel traveling before settling in a small town in Vermont where he resumes his career, and Isabelle to a life that includes marriage and a child. 

They continue to stay in touch and play a pivotal role in each stage of the other’s life.  

“The way I approach the work is from my characters. If you know your characters well enough it’s not hard to figure out what they’ll do,” said Goldstone, who writes character sketches to explore her characters’ backstories.

“I had to trust that the process would get me there.”

Her greatest challenge was that faced by all writers—facing the fear of failure, choosing the right words and hoping that the emotional content held true.

“I was learning how to write prose as I was writing. The challenge was to be in the middle of the morass and not be overwhelmed by the choices. I had to trust that the process would get me there,” said Goldstone.

She benefited from her years as a screenwriter by gaining “an innate sense of how to structure a story.” But, while screenplays use behavior to show thoughts and feelings, Goldstone was now free to use words to reflect her character’s interior states.

“The process of writing has to be fed every day.”

The story went through seven drafts. Final revisions centered on beefing up secondary characters, learning more about Isabelle’s husband Michael and bringing Daniel’s son Stefan back into the story towards the end.  

“The process of writing has to be fed every day,” said Goldstone. “Put your backside on the chair every day. It doesn’t matter how many words you write; your subconscious will continue to work out the story.”

Goldstone is following her own advice. She is currently working on a collection of short stories on the theme of forgiveness. 

About the Author

Deena Goldstone is the author of the short-story collection Tell Me One Thing and a screenwriter of feature films and television movies. She lives in Pasadena, California with her family. Surprise Me is her first novel.

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About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.